When Argentina and the Netherlands are mentioned in World Cup conversations, their showdown in the 1978 final usually crops up first. As it should. But they also played a classic 20 years later.
The Dutch, losing finalists to host West Germany four years earlier, had improbably returned to the 1978 final without Johan Cruyff, their talisman during most of the decade. He’d quit the team over safety concerns or fierce disagreements with Dutch soccer officials, or both. There were good reasons to fear a trip to Argentina, where a brutal military regime had been tearing citizens away from their families and friends and workmates. Many of them were never heard from again. A chilling term, "los desaparecidos" ("the disappeared"), had entered Argentine lexicon.
In this grim cauldron, Coach Cesar Luis Menotti took up the task of winning a first World Cup for Argentina, which fortunately had enough good players that Menotti could risk shunning a precocious teenager named Diego Maradona. Without him, Argentina would progress through two group stages -- the second of which produced a very suspicious 6-0 demolition of Peru that edged Argentina ahead of rival Brazil on goal difference -- to the final.
In San Diego, where I was living, the only way for me to watch the games was to hook up a cable to my small TV and run it outside, where I attached it to a coat hanger festooned on the fence. That device enabled me to pull in the signal from a station in Tijuana (Canal 12, XEWT, if memory serves correctly) and thus I created a "man cave: for soccer. My neighbors in the apartment complex seemed intrigued by my ingenuity but never actually investigated its implementation. For the final, fortunately, there was an alternative.
When Argentina and the Netherlands met in the final at Estadio Monumental in Buenos Aires, I was more than 6,000 miles away in the Los Angeles Sports Arena accompanied by my best friend Larry. We were waving tiny Dutch pennants we’d bought in the parking lot and felt utterly ridiculous as a sea of blue and white engulfed us. When Argentina took the field and the Monumental erupted in blue-and-white confetti, so too did sections of the Sports Arena.
The TV feed showed a hardy band of Dutch fans, perhaps a dozen or so, waving their orange, and I thought to myself, “Well, I know how they feel.” You just didn’t hear the noise, you felt it. The air crackled with passion. We were buffeted by chants and cheers and screams and songs, along with the occasional obscenity.
We had a few moments of joy, particularly when substitute Dirk Nanninga headed an equalizer in the 81st minute to tie the game, 1-1, and had Rob Rensenbrink’s shot from a sharp angle in the final seconds of regulation bounced left instead of right and back into play, we probably would have hid our flags and held our celebrations until we were in the car. Instead, the roaring seldom slackened as Mario Kempes and then Daniel Bertoni scored the goals by which Argentine won, 3-1, and kept its date with destiny.
Fast forward 20 years. I was in Marseilles, at the stunning Stade Velodrome working for Soccer America, where the Netherlands and Argentina were set to duel in a rematch. This was the quarterfinal stage, in which host France, powerhouse Brazil, and tournament specialists Italy and Germany were all in the hunt.
Prior to game day, as mandated by FIFA, the teams held open training sessions and media availability. Players were obligated to attend but answering questions was optional. Yet the mood in the Dutch squad was light, and when the reporters and broadcasters gathered in clusters and bunches, the players spoke.
For a few hours at least, the Dutch players put aside the standoff-ish surliness with which they often respond in such situations. There was a fair amount of give-and-take, the tone was relaxed. English reporters crowded around backup keeper Ed de Goey, which seemed strange until one realized they knew him well as the backup keeper for Chelsea. Edgar Davids, resplendent in sinister goggles and unabashed dreads, was a big hit, flashing a huge smile and booming out slightly off-key English answers such as, “I feel always fine.”
I waited patiently as another Premier League employee, Dennis Bergkamp, answered questions in Dutch. He had fascinated me not only by his confident, elegant play but also statements such as, “Behind every kick of the ball there must be a thought.” Not many players can formulate that observation, much less express it. Obviously, off the field as well as on it, Bergkamp was different.
Calm of temperament and spindly of build, he’d confounded opponents and flummoxed observers -- and greatly tormented aficionados of Arsenal’s rivals, in my case Chelsea -- by sifting through a hurly-burly world as if a ghost. He would appear 30 or 40 yards from goal, near or with the ball, opponents would converge, and he’d meld into a blur of motion, vanish, then suddenly reappear with the ball in the penalty area. He could glide past tackles and speed through pressure for all to see, but his mastery of congested space seemed to defy all known physical law.
When he walked away from the journalists towards me, I said, “A few questions in English, Dennis?” He nodded and for about 15 minutes a reporter from the Washington Post based in Paris, Anne Swardson, and I talked with him. And it was talking, very conversational, almost casual. He was polite and modest and frank all at the same time. He eluded compliments as he would a desperation tackle, he praised his teammates and coaches. His club had just won the double of league title and FA Cup, his national team had reached the World Cup quarterfinals for the first time since he was a child, and he couldn’t have been more down-to-earth, matter-of-fact, humble.
The simplicity of the game had always appealed to him and he cherished it above all else. Formations, tactics, strategies, rivalries, histories, etc., were important yet not the absolute essentials. The game is first played in the mind.
“You have good players and a good method and a good mentality, and anything is possible,” he said. He would soon prove that of himself, as well.
For the game, I arrived two hours before kickoff and walk into a huge street party a few blocks from the stadium. Those in orange mocked those in blue and white and their toasts were tinged with tension, but the mood is celebratory. They posed for pictures, they shared food, they compared headgear of all shapes and sizes. Their demeanors might change after the game, since one team was doomed to elimination, so for now, they enjoyed the occasion.
Every World Cup match is unique, but this was a grand sporting clash of continent and cultures. It was decided by a goal of proper magnitude and quality in a magical time, the final minute of regulation, the same juncture at which two decades ago Rensenbrink, who would spend part of his career in the NASL with Portland, hit the post.
I was near the top of the stand and at the end the Dutch were attacking, just a few yards from the endline, and in the ideal spot to witness the drama to unfold. It was 1-1, each team was down to 10 men, and extra time was looming. Frank de Boer lofted a long ball out of the Dutch half towards the right side, a measured ball of nearly 60 yards in the air. Bergkamp collected it deep inside the penalty area and instinctually I sensed his idea: not to cross or flick or dribble, but to slice the ball with the outside of his right foot, and as ‘No way!’ flashed through my brain, he did exactly that.
With his second touch, he chopped the ball past defenderRoberto Ayala to send it bouncing toward goal. Near the edge of the six-yard box he squared his frame to the ball and gently prodded it with the outside of his right foot. Keeper Carlos Roa waved his right arm futilely and fell to his knees in surrender as the ball spun past him and nestled high in the net. Like everyone else, I jumped to my feet, a witness to genius. The huge mass of orange behind Roa’s goal burst into flame and so loud was the roar my ears rang as they did in the Sports Arena.
I can’t expect or predict matches or moments like those of 1978 and 1998 to occur Wednesday in Sao Paulo. But like the man said, “Anything is possible.”